Is the political left turning against technology? One could be forgiven for thinking so. Left-leaning media regularly expresses frustration with the titans of Silicon Valley, with the idea of technological “disruption,” and with automation. In the San Francisco Bay Area the tech industry is often criticized over issues of sexism and real estate prices. Leading politicians on the left, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, have a notoriously chilly relationship with the tech industry; some are even starting fights with tech companies, as New York Mayor Bill De Blasio recently did with Uber.
What might explain the anti-technology mood on the left? Part of it is undoubtedly because of the tech industry’s money. The left is often suspicious of concentrations of wealth, and Silicon Valley regularly mints new billionaires. More generally, tech has boomed during the past five years, even as other parts of the economy have struggled, and that makes tech an easy target for frustration and anxiety over the state of the job market. And finally some on the left have bristled at the small but prominent and very vocal hardcore libertarian tech titans, who profess values that are very much at odds with the leanings of many in the industry.
This acrimony is so far just a rumbling of friction and frustration, not a full-blown conflict. People within the tech industry do tend to lean left, and center-left politicians such as Hillary Clinton continue to court Silicon Valley. Nevertheless, the stirring of animosity between the left and tech is worrying. It’s troubling for the tech industry because the U.S. political landscape is shifting leftward. But it’s even more problematic for the left itself, because technology is essential to the left’s existence and to its future.
In the long term, technology is a force that powers the liberalization of society.
Social progress is, at its core, about disruption. Powerful groups create stable institutions in order to preserve their power, and social progress relies on disrupting those institutions. New technology gives people new ways of overturning the existing order. For example, Barack Obama — the first black president and the most liberal president in decades — was a pioneer in using online fundraising, gathering lots of small donations from regular folks. That eased the burden of begging for large donations from the rich and powerful. Tech nerds themselves were crucial to the Obama campaign effort. In other words, Silicon Valley was essential to the Obama revolution.
Or take the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a grassroots upwelling of protest against police brutality after a number of high-profile killings of black men. There is a reason that there is a hashtag symbol in front of that movement’s name. #BlackLivesMatter was created and is sustained by social media — a recent creation of Silicon Valley. The powerful images and videos of the police killings that sparked the movement were disseminated by that very same technology. Police brutality and racism were just as prevalent a decade ago, but without the tools developed by tech industry, they remained hidden from public view.
The second way that technology powers liberalism is by creating economic growth. New technology is what causes economies to become richer. The division of the economic pie is important, but the size of the pie is much more important. Rich countries still have poor people, but they no longer starve.
Tech also plays a role in reshaping society in ways that those on the left embrace. New technologies such as washing machines made household labor far less time-consuming and onerous, which helped ease the way for women to enter the workforce. The economy’s long-term shift away from manufacturing and agriculture and toward services — another result of technological progress — tended to level the economic playing field between men and women, which in turn has helped drive gender equality.
We need to sustain that progress, and supporting the creation of new technology is crucial to doing that. This is a crucial role for government. Government funds basic research, which private companies are loath to do. Government also educates children, which is essential to creating the workforce needed in a technology-based economy. Actually, this is another reason the left — which is less suspicious of government spending than the right — should be supportive of the tech industry.
Some people worry that technology is shifting from something that boosts growth to something that exacerbates inequality. That fear is overblown. There is, as yet, scant evidence that automation is putting people out of work. Although futurists and economists should think about what will happen if robots ever do take our jobs, and consider ways to prepare for that future, it remains within the realm of science fiction.
So the American left should avoid the temptation to fear technological progress or to bash the tech industry. Tech remains the left’s indispensable friend and ally.
Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University and a freelance writer for finance and business publications.
© 2015, Bloomberg View